KUALA LUMPUR: In 2014, Abdul Hannaan Khairy applied to join Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party in his home state of Perlis.
Four years later, the electronics engineering graduate claims he has yet to receive a response.
“I was left hanging. It was very frustrating at that time as I was very eager to join UMNO and to give my best to the party,” Hannaan told Channel NewsAsia.
The 25-year-old went on to join former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party which was launched last year.
Hannaan’s experience adds to a perception in some circles that UMNO is not receptive to young people. The party’s critics say this is out of fear that they could compete with the old guard for a ticket to stand at the coming elections, which must be called by August 2018.
The main parties' attitudes towards younger voters will be in sharp focus when the election is called, given their sheer numbers. According to the Election Commission, there are 14.62 million registered voters in the country, of which 42 per cent are aged between 21 and 39.
MALAYSIAN YOUTHS’ CONCERNS
Hisommudin Bakar, the executive director of independent research firm Ilham Centre, believes that there is a groundswell of discontent among young Malaysians.
“For (Malay) voters aged between 26 and 35, they are highly critical of the government because they are burdened with economic factors which are not encouraging,” Hisommudin said. “The high cost of petrol and diesel, in addition to the 6 per cent goods and services (GST) tax, is placing significant pressure on this group of voters.”
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Singapore, said: "They (young people) experience difficulties in finding well-paying employment, let alone buying a house. Those in higher education as well as fresh graduates have to deal with relatively high student debts.”
Malaysia's inflation rate rose 3.5 per cent year-on-year in December 2017 as transport costs climbed on higher fuel prices, according to official figures. This brings full-year inflation to 3.7 per cent, up from 2.1 per cent in 2016.
But for 2018, analysts are expecting the inflation rate to decline.
Still, the high cost of living is one of the most important issues impacting the country, said Hannaan. “We know that the cost of living will increase over time, but the rate of the increase is very fast now,” he said. “It must slow down.”
Wan Saiful observed that young Malaysians are not just concerned about the country, they want “to do something”. “They found new platforms like PPBM who accept them with open arms … this leads them to join the party,” he added.
THE ALLURE OF MAHATHIR
Ironically, it is the oldest politician in Malaysia who seems to be winning the battle for young members. Dr Mahathir was the country’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and many Malaysians who grew up in that era still see him as a hero, said Wan Saiful.
“They (young Malays) grew up seeing and enjoying the high level of physical and economic development that Mahathir brought to the country,” he said. “But they were also too young to understand the criticisms that were levelled at Mahathir throughout (his) time in office.”
PPBM has the largest youth population among the parties, with more than 55 percent of its members aged below 35.
Hannaan said that he joined the party because of its willingness to listen. “You (should) see how they (PPBM seniors) treat us, the younger generation ... they not only listen but they implement the ideas that we give them when they agree with them. And if they don’t agree or they don’t understand what the youths need, it is then opened up for debate.”
A 27-year-old professional, who declined to be named, said: “When PPBM was formed, I saw hope (that) a young party can be shaped with the right fundamentals to fight for the right cause.”
Both he and Hannaan pointed to PPBM’s appointment of 25-year-old Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman as the party’s youth chief as “giving them hope” that their voices would be heard in Mahathir’s party.
Syed Saddiq made a name for himself during his university days when he became Asia’s top debater, winning the Best Speaker award at the Asian British Parliamentary Debating Championship three times.
UMNO’S STRUGGLES AT REJUVENATION
He said UMNO used to give “lots of space” for young people to grow and rise through the ranks – Prime Minister Najib Razak was only 23 when he was first elected to parliament in 1976 – but Syed Saddiq believes that is no longer the case.
“When smart young people want to join UMNO but get taken out because they are seen as competitors, a lot of them feel very frustrated,” said Syed Saddiq.
Wan Saiful believes that UMNO has become “bureaucratic and hierarchical”. “It is not easy (for young Malays) to be heard in an environment where elderly warlords dominate the scene,” he said.
It is an accusation the ruling party has firmly rejected.
On the alleged difficulties young Malays face in joining UMNO, the party’s secretary-general Tengku Adnan Mansor said: “That is a blatant lie. Anyone can join. They can apply online on our website.”
Tengku Sariffuddin Ahmad, press secretary for Prime Minister Najib Razak, said: “We value young people. They are the future of the country.”
But Wan Saiful argued that UMNO’s rejuvenation process has failed, pointing to the fact that the party’s current youth chief and youngest cabinet minister is 42-year-old Khairy Jamaluddin.
“In the longer term, UMNO will face a crisis if they cannot find a way to give way to the younger leaders,” Wan Saiful warned.
THE IMPACT ON UMNO
Nevertheless, he does not expect PBBM’s youths to threaten UMNO’s rule – the country’s largest political party has been in power since Malaysia’s independence from the British in 1957.
“On the whole, it is still not easy for parties like PPBM to gain sufficient votes to sweep the country clean because of our Westminster system; and the constituency boundaries are more beneficial to UMNO,” said Wan Saiful.
But Hisommudin warned that any loss of youth votes could still have an impact on the ruling party.
“Forty per cent of the young voters are currently fence sitters,” he said. “If BN should lose 5-10 per cent of the votes from the young voters, it will threaten its seats in Parliament which it won in the last elections.”